WHEN POST-GLOBAL-WARMING anthropologists begin paddling through the streets of Manhattan in search of visible evidence that this republic was, in its tone and temper, the cosmopolitan democracy that it purported to be, one can only hope that the earnest scientists will stumble across a trove of John Wesley's paintings in some tenth-floor loft. If they do, they will almost immediately begin to think better of us. They will think, Hey! These weren't such bad dudes! How could they be? They were cool, generous, and urbane; they encouraged high spirits and valued sex enough to make it elegant and funny. They will be wrong, of course, since you and I both know that, should they fail to come upon this trove of Wesleys, further evidence of our levity, civility, and sanity will be hard to come by—thus, the virtue and necessity of John Wesley. He has always aspired to the best job available to an artist of his generation: Court Painter to the People, Purveyor of Popular Elegance, Ambienceur of the Democracy.
He has also lived an exquisitely charmed life—which is to say, a private one. Born John Mercer Wesley in Los Angeles in 1928, he began making paintings in 1953, while employed as an illustrator at Northrop Aircraft. He has continued to make them throughout the intervening forty-eight years. He moved to New York in 1960 and continues to reside there, living the life of a painter, exhibiting his work whenever he wants to, selling it whenever he needs to, and consorting with his peers. In the process, almost magically, Wesley has managed to assemble an enormous international constituency of devotees without once attracting the silly glare of paparazzo adulation, the resentful hysteria of political acrimony, or the cloudy glaze of educational explanation. In fact, Wesley's continuing vogue as a painter is, in its every aspect, more closely akin to that of a great jazz musician or songwriter than to that of an American artist. In the enclave of enthusiasts, he is simply John Wesley, an acknowledged master, the Cole Porter of painting. Those who know know; those who care care; those who don't know or care don't have a clue, but that's okay, too.
In recent years, when you come across references to Wesley, he is usually characterized as an eccentric Pop painter with surrealist tendencies. Which is true enough, I suppose, if we remember that 90 percent of Western painting from Giotto to Natoire is “surrealist” by contemporary standards, and if we take into account the broader agenda of Pop, which was always more about “art” than “pop.” Even so, I cannot think of a single Pop or Surrealist painting whose narrative content we respond to as we do to Wesley's. Because John Wesley, when he wants to be, is really sexy—as sexy as a Tijuana Bible or a Boucher divertissement. This penchant for erotic narrative, I think, defines Wesley as more an eighteenth-century fabulist than a surrealist, and as a Pop artist only in the sense that Pop empowered the restoration of traditional genre in cartoon drag. So, we need to remember that, at the moment of Pop's inception, American art was starving in the midst of plenty, and that young artists like John Wesley, who began exhibiting in the early '60s, could hardly have failed to notice that, while modernist painting was obsessively refining itself out of existence the full resources of historical art making, all of its traditional idioms and repertoire of emblematic imagery, lay immediately to hand, alive and available in the pastures of vernacular culture.
So, Pop brought it all back—in cartoon drag. Under its auspices, the tragic Magdalen reemerged as Marilyn in Andy Warhol's portraits; Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein mined the media bank to reinstate history painting as a serious genre; Tom Wesselmann revivified the odalisque; Wayne Thiebaud reconstituted nature morte in pastryshop settings; and John Wesley reinvented the casual, libidinous allegories of Rococo painting for contemporary use. He was able to reinvent them effortlessly, in fact, and almost invisibly, because, even though Zeus adopted more orphaned maidens than Daddy Warbucks, the Ovidian idiom of erotic disguise remained intact and alive in the culture—and also because, during the ancien régime, the extravagant confections of Rococo painting functioned themselves as the “funny papers” of Versailles. Adorning palace hallways and drawing rooms, they provided veiled, amused commentary on the courtly life that took place before them, reveling in its cutthroat frivolity. So it wasn't a stretch. Substitute the hegemony of Puritan values in America for the terrifying autocracy of the Bourbon kings and you have a new occasion for sophisticated inference, for allegorical eroticism in which things are heard without quite being said.
Glance over the length of Wesley's career, then, and you'll discover the whole population of Rococo painting; the nymphs and nymphets, nereids and mermaids, sylphs and shepherdesses, geishas and Indian princesses—not to mention numerous nubile young goddesses with animal attributes (birds, bears, turkeys [!], dogs, fish, and bunnies). There's even a baby floating on a cloud. In place of Boucher's Rinaldo and Arrnida, Wesley deploys Dagwood and Blondie in erotic abandon; in place of Venus and the infant Bacchus, he portrays Olive Oyl and Swee' Pea, but the lightness of touch and level of allegorical remove are exactly the same, as are the sexy sujets galants, the multitudinous subgenres of Rococo practice. At one time or another Wesley adapts nearly all of them to his own ends: the fêtes galantes and pastorales, the seasonal allegories and Arcadian landscapes, the Ovidian metamorphoses, historical anecdotes, and sporting scenes, the orientales, chinoiseries, odalisques, and divertissements (i.e., sexy pictures). Even the prime accoutrements of Rococo ornament, the cartouche, the curvilinear pattern, and the elaborated border, remain in evidence.
The most interesting thing about Wesley's shrewd appropriation of Rococo idioms, however, is less the fact that they are there than the fact that we don't notice them, or, if we do, we don't remark on them. Part of this inattention may be attributed to Wesley's disarming levity, and to the relative invisibility of Rococo painting (due to its own levity). There is also the off chance that our reading of casual allegories like Wesley's or Boucher's is so ingrained as to have become second nature. Finally, though, I think that our silence is attributable to the sheer, nuanced knowingness of Wesley's work and to our complicity in it, since the work presumes that we, too, are cognoscenti and that what we know goes without saying. In truth, everything in Wesley's paintings is so quietly and carefully achieved, so much a matter of centimeters, lumens, and the speed of curves, that talk seems irrelevant, almost irreverent. Even Wesley's transmutation of pop subjects into serious painting is subtle and seamless, a gradual process through which the crude icons of lumpen culture are gentrified by the elegant linearity of haut bourgeois illustration (as practiced by John Held Jr., James Thurber, and Al Hirschfeld); then, this linearity is itself refined by the cool palette and handless formality of post-painterly American abstraction, so the paintings seem to become art inevitably and almost inadvertently.
Thus, Wesley's images rarely feel transgressive. They feel impudent but achieved and appropriately grounded in the analogical relationship between their subjects and their rendering. Like Thiebaud's food paintings—which beguile us because the gleaming viscosity of their paint looks appetizing—Wesley's curvaceous pastels look sexy because curvaceous pastels constitute one of the icons of sexy in this culture. More generally, the intimacy between Wesley's subjects and his manner of rendering them dramatizes the single binding affinity between Pop and Rococo painting: the fact that they are both ornamental rather than decorative practices, and rigorously so. In the artistic revolutions during which the sexual exuberance of Rococo painting overthrew Baroque high seriousness and the libidinous levity of Pop overthrew utopian modernism, the distinction between decoration and ornament is critical, because decoration is invariably utopian, and utopian art (of the sort practiced by Baroque history painters and high modernists) is almost invariably decorative.
Decoration, we know, presumes that we may be born again; it aims toward the total makeover and strives to redeem that which we find unattractive or inappropriate about our environment or ourselves. Ornament, on the other hand, aims to celebrate some preexistent something outside ourselves that we already
value. Decoration is a discourse of longing, then, while ornament, as critics from John Ruskin to Oleg Grabar have insisted, is a discourse of love. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin remarks that we make something because we need it, that we make it well because we want it to last, then ornament it because we love what lasts. Ornament, then, comes into being in praise of what is, or what we presume to be, and, as such, it functions as a hedge against the night. As a consequence of these temperamental differences, the patterning and iteration that characterizes both ornament and decoration are startlingly distinct in their effects. Decorative iteration, whether in a Mies building or Liberace's bedroom, functions as a kind of prophetic nagging (This is better, tight? Of course, this is better! Can't you see that this is better?), while ornamental iteration, in the Alhambra or in a John Wesley painting, functions as a celebratory intensifier (Daddy's home! Daddy's home! Daddy's home!, etc.).
Wesley's penchant for using ornament in this way, as an intensifier, is, I think, what gives his paintings their peculiar, atavistic aroma, what roughs them up despite their suave demeanor and gives them their edge—and we feel this edge, I suspect, because this use of ornament really defines the primal site of representation, in casual allegory, in the wolfs head on the dagger's handle. From the beginning, Wesley's paintings have been permeated by the atmosphere of this kind of ornament—by the ambience of Greek vessels, Scythian tattoos, Roman mosaic, Islamic tile work, chivalric heraldry, Gothic illumination, Edo screens, and Rococo baptisteries. And, even in sophisticated disguise, even when their subjects must be inferred rather than asserted, Wesley's paintings always locate the source of our levity and good humor in the fact of what we love and present it to us refined and intensified. So this conclusion is inevitable: If ornament is crime, John Wesley is a master criminal, but if love is wrong, I don't want to be right.
Dave Hickey is a writer and critic who lives in Las Vegas.